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The Magdalen Fragments of St Matthew’s Gospel

Here Carsten Thiede, a German scholar on a social visit to Oxford, came upon three tiny fragments of papyrus from a codex of the Gospel of St. Matthew. They had been acquired by a missionary, Charles Huleatt, in Luxor, Upper Egypt, in the 1890s and gifted to his old college before his death in the Messina earthquake of 1908. Huleatt had made a name for himself in Oxford as a textual critic before taking orders and setting forth as a chaplain for Thomas Cook & Son, the travel firm, at the Luxor Hotel to serve English travellers abroad. He had identified the brief fragments of text on both sides of the papyri as part of Matthew XXVI: the account of the woman who anointed Jesus at the house of Simon the Leper, His prediction that one of the Twelve would betray Him, that they would all disown Him and that He would go ahead of them into Galilee. In conformity with the prevailing opinion of Biblical studies, which held that the gospels were late productions of the maturing church and were mainly mythological creations in tune with the developed theology of the time rather than eye-witness accounts of the events of Christ’s life in history, the fragments were dated to the third or fourth century, like the majority of such papyri being unearthed all over the Near East. So they received little attention. The fact that they came from a ‘book’ rather than a scroll confirmed this opinion as the development of the codex was deemed to be a product of the late Roman Empire. These precious pieces were consigned to obscurity in the library alongside Oscar Wilde’s ring and Addison’s buckles, where they remained for a century.

In 1953 the Magdalen fragments were re-examined and edited by Colin Roberts, who made a reassessment of their date. He was aware by then that the use of the codex was older than had been thought. His knowledge of papyri from Berlin and Oxyrhyncus led him to believe that the Biblical Uncial hand of these fragments was in use by the second century to which he now assigned them.

When Thiede saw them his recent research told him a very different story. Here was evidence of a handwriting style in use in the mid-first century, very similar to manuscripts found at Qumran (all pre 68 A.D.), at Herculaneum (pre 79 A.D.) and other very early papyri of both Christian and secular texts. Thiede returned to Oxford again and again to study them and became convinced that these fragments were written by 60 A.D. or even earlier. His isolation of palaeographical ‘markers’ such as the equal thickness of the vertical and horizontal strokes and the touching of one letter upon another proved their early date as these features were abandoned by the second century. Discoveries of new scrolls in the Nahal Hever ‘Cave of Horrors’ provided Thiede with better examples of this hand which could be precisely dated to the mid-first century. Radiocarbon dating used in archaeology was impractical on such tiny fragments and would, in any case, be insufficiently precise. The whole weight of proof for Thiede depends on the writing; his invention of a special microscope for examining the fragmentary ink survival has strengthened his view, which is by no means wholly accepted by other scholars.

His study of the very swift communications in the Roman Empire, the rapid dissemination of Christian texts such as Paul’s letters and the multilingual abilities of the apostles and evangelists using Greek to spread the Gospel message among the dispersed Jews and Gentile converts from Rome to Alexandria and beyond supports the content of this manuscript. Indeed it enables him to claim that book-form was a Christian invention, facilitating the transmission of the Gospel to the widely scattered new churches throughout the Empire.

The implications of this discovery for traditionalists is immense. It places the gospel of Matthew, and therefore of Mark too, as written within a generation of the Crucifixion by one who could have been an eye-witness and which must have been used by eye-witnesses, their friends and disciples. The whole fabric of form criticism developed by Renan, Strauss and Bultmann in the last century, which has bred liberal scepticism about the literal veracity of the Gospels, is undermined.

And for the Coptic Orthodox, is it not remarkable that the earliest known New Testament book should be found in Upper Egypt ? Though it does not prove that the manuscript was written there, perhaps we might have expected this; Alexandria was one of the principal Patriarchates of the early church. Alexandria was in direct communication with Jerusalem and Rome. We note that when the Jewish Council in Jerusalem took advantage of a vacancy in the Roman governorship and martyred James, the Lord’s Brother, in 62 A.D., messages were sent to Albinus at Alexandria on his way to take up the post an d appraise him of the situation. This was the direct route from Rome. St. Mark was the apostle to the Copts; although usually held to have written his Gospel in Rome after St. Peter’s death, he could well have written and circulated it in Alexandria while St. Matthew was writing his in Jerusalem . The similarity of the two accounts suggests close contact. The Jesus Papyrus is a very precious testimony to our faith and it is beautifully and clearly explained by these two remarkable authors.

Richard F. Dell




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